GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Rod Brind’Amour remembers the first time he met Chad LaRose.
It was in August of 2005 at an informal skate put on by the Carolina Hurricanes’ captain and other veterans in advance of training camp.
LaRose, Brind’Amour remembers with a chuckle, skated so hard that day that he threw up.
He went up to the diminutive young forward and told him, “Hey, you gotta slow down. You’re not going to make the team today.”
But that was just how “Rosey” was, in practice and in games. He went full-tilt, all-out and there was never any slowing him down. Brind’Amour loved him for that. All of his Hurricanes teammates did.
It’s the type of passion that is lacking in today’s game, Brind’Amour mused, and it was the type of passion that was so conspicuously absent from LaRose during his last year in the NHL — the lockout-shortened 2013 season.
By then, Brind’Amour was no longer LaRose’s teammate, but rather a part of the Canes’ coaching staff. But he saw the change in his good friend, regardless. The two had forged a unique bond as members of Carolina’s 2006 Stanley Cup championship team, with the veteran captain having taken LaRose under his wing.
When LaRose blew off his exit meeting with then-general manager Jim Rutherford at the end of a disappointing 2013 season, Brind’Amour was shocked. Everyone was. LaRose had been toying with packing it in after a difficult season in which he was relegated to a diminished role and played limited minutes. Now he had officially cut the cord.
Looking back, maybe everyone should’ve seen it coming. Knowing LaRose’s strong-willed personality, he would’ve been staunch in his beliefs that he was making the right choice and that no one could sway him.
“I had just built up so much anger and hatred for the game,” LaRose told ESPN.com. “I started not being myself, even to teammates.”
LaRose felt he had been getting a raw deal from the coaching staff. Though he had experience and grit and heart, he saw young players with more skill and pedigree get opportunities he did not.
“I’m an undrafted free agent. Every year, when I came into training camp, even if I had 19 goals [or] won a Stanley Cup, a first-round draft pick had my spot until he couldn’t cut it. Every year. And it just built up,” LaRose said. “You see some guys get certain breaks and that’s going to happen — I’ve seen that my whole career — but I just built up more hate for it and I didn’t want to do that, not like guys because they were getting the chance and I wasn’t.”
LaRose had offers that following summer to play overseas in Europe and to play in the American Hockey League, but he wasn’t interested, even though his agents urged him to reconsider. He didn’t want to take any team’s money. He didn’t want to take any kid’s spot, knowing that both the joy and fire he used to get from playing had been siphoned almost entirely from his reserve.
His family was crushed. His teammates were bewildered, but LaRose needed time off. He was burnt out and fed up.
“I built up that hate over years. It wasn’t just one specific thing, just the politics of hockey,” said the 32-year-old LaRose. “You don’t realize sometimes what you’ve got until it’s gone.”
Leaving the Game Since summer 2013, LaRose has fallen in love.
First, it was with Leanne Mansour, a Michigan girl he met at a graduation party that June who later became his fiancée. After that initial meeting, LaRose — who hails from Fraser, Michigan — went to her office, where she worked in human resources, and asked for her number.
She was surprised, but she gave it to him anyway.
It was Mansour who would turn on hockey games occasionally, asking him to help explain the game he had once played. He never liked to watch hockey much, even during his playing days, but since he walked away from the game, he felt even less interest.
But her interest sparked his own, and her support led to gradual change.
He started to feel like himself again, not like the quiet, withdrawn, resentful person he had become in those last months in Carolina.
I built up that hate over years. It wasn’t just one specific thing, just the politics of hockey. You don’t realize sometimes what you’ve got until it’s gone.
“She helped me to become happy again.” LaRose said.
And that’s when he fell in love again, this time with the sport that he had played since age 2.
It took time, but little by little he started to reconnect with some of his old buddies, most of whom he had abruptly cut contact with once he decided to hang up the skates.
When he caught wind that goaltender and good friend Cam Ward was feeling down last season (LaRose’s father and Ward’s father still kept in touch), LaRose reached out and sent him a lengthy, encouraging text. Then he started exchanging messages with a few more of his old cohorts, Tim Gleason, whom he grew up playing with; and Eric Staal, who was his roommate on the road for many years with the Canes.
By the time the first round of the playoffs rolled around last April, LaRose did not have to muster excitement or feign enthusiasm: He had actual interest in watching the Detroit Red Wings-Boston Bruins series.
By the time the Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings met in the Western Conference finals, LaRose was riveted.
“It was so fast, so good. Seven games,” LaRose said. “It made me realize that I’ve done that and that I want to — I know I can — do that again.”
Though he now spent the majority of his time off doing the things he missed during his NHL days — spending time with family, hanging out with nieces and nephews, traveling, etc. — he continued to work out and stay in shape.
When he made the decision to attempt a comeback, he parted ways with the powerhouse agency Newport Sports and enlisted former NHLer Jason Woolley to represent him.
The two sat down for lunch one day and LaRose made it clear that he knew the road ahead would not be easy. With so much emphasis on “character” these days, teams were not going to be lining up to offer him a contract. LaRose knew that, and Woolley was glad his client had realistic expectations.
“I knew I’d have my hands full from the point of trying to get him a job, especially at the NHL level, but Rosey was adamant about knowing this was going to be an uphill battle,” said Woolley, who played 13 seasons as a defenseman in the NHL.
It was difficult for Woolley, having to explain to teams why LaRose chose to leave the NHL and vouching for him that his desire to return was sincere.
In the end, it was the organization he left that offered him the opportunity to return.
LaRose signed a deal with the Hurricanes’ minor league affiliate, the Charlotte Checkers. There was a comfort factor there for both sides about what type of player and person LaRose really was.
He was ready to come back, and they granted him the chance.
“I couldn’t be more proud of Chad,” Woolley said. “It takes a lot to do what he’s doing. I don’t think people realize how difficult it is to face your fears a bit and come out on top. I really believe he’s gonna play in the NHL again and once he’s there, he’s not going anywhere.”
Starting A New Chapter It’s been both a trying year and a satisfying one for LaRose.
He got hurt before training camp and suffered a knee injury recently that forced him to miss some time.
Still, he leads the Checkers in scoring with nine goals and 19 points in 37 games, and he has blossomed into a valued leader on a very young team, wearing the “A” for alternate captain in recent weeks.
On a recent game day in Michigan, with the Checkers in town to play the Grand Rapids Griffins, LaRose was the first to arrive at the rink, coffee in hand, and with a chipper attitude.
“He’s been a great teammate,” Checkers head coach Jeff Daniels said. “He’s well-liked. He’s a bit of a comedian. He keeps things loose, but also he’s been around long enough that he can kind of pass on some wisdom to some of the younger guys about what it takes to be a pro, what’s the next level all about.”
Whereas Brind’Amour took LaRose under his wing in Carolina, LaRose has done the same with young guys on the Checkers, players whom LaRose predicts will have “long NHL careers.”
“He’s definitely lively,” said 20-year-old winger Brock McGinn. “He’s always cracking jokes, keeping things upbeat. He makes it fun to be here. He’s definitely a guy you want to have in your room.”
Part of the fun for LaRose, and fellow veterans like Drew McIntyre and Ben Holmstrom, has been witnessing some of those young kids get their first call-ups to the NHL. In his early 20s, LaRose might have felt passed over or envious of others getting a promotion, but now he’s simply proud.
“That excites me, to see those young guys develop and get their call-up,” LaRose said.
But LaRose hasn’t abandoned hope that he, too, will get another shot at the NHL.
“I want to help a team. I want to bring back that energy and show someone I can make a playoff run or win a Stanley Cup again,” LaRose said. “I think I can be that X-factor.”
And those that know him feel confident that his determination, the very virtue that got him into the NHL in the first place, will get him back there.
“I would have him on my team any day, I would tell you that,” Brind’Amour said.
Even Jim Rutherford, now general manager of the Pittsburgh Penguins, seems to harbor no hard feelings about the tenuous terms under which LaRose left the team. LaRose called him weeks after their infamous nonmeeting and apologized about the way he handled the situation.
Rutherford always admired LaRose’s dogged attitude and wishes him the best.
“He’s a guy that [gave] everything he’s got to get to where he got to,” Rutherford told ESPN.com.
“He’s a guy I really care for.”
LaRose doesn’t seem to regret the decision he made back in 2013. He needed a breather to regroup and recover. But he knows he could have handled it better, admitting he made some “bad choices at the end of that year.”
But this is a new chapter in his story, one that has already taken plenty of twists and turns.
He wants it to end with one more shot to play in the NHL.
“I’m hoping that chance comes again,” LaRose said. “I won’t ever let it go if it does.”